The Chicago Academy of Sciences has been a leader in local ecology and scientific education for 159 years. To commemorate the anniversary of our founding on January 13, 1857, our new exhibit, "Chicago's Explorers," highlights the institution's scientific and educational activities. The exhibit will be on display at the Nature Museum through the end of February.
If you'd like to learn more about the Academy's history, check out our detailed timeline, which will continue to grow as we continue to explore. We hope you enjoy our exhibit and get out to explore nature in Chicago with us!
Director of Collections
The Saloon Building in Chicago, 1839
(Image courtesy of the Chicago History Museum)
The Saloon Building is where Chicago’s first city government was formed and oversaw the fastest growing city in the world. It was also here that a group of forward-thinking scientists, physicians, and business leaders founded The Chicago Academy of Natural Sciences on January 13, 1857. Some of these founders had been a part of the Smithsonian Institution, which opened its doors just 11 years earlier. The institution was incorporated in 1859 as “The Chicago Academy of Sciences,” which remains our institutional name today.
Robert Kennicott, ca. 1860 (left)
(Image courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution)
Kennicott’s caribou shirt, ca. 1860 (right)
The collections of Robert Kennicott formed the core of the Academy’s initial scientific collections. His expansive studies of Illinois fauna resulted in the discovery of many species new to science, some of which were named after him by other scientists, including the stripe-tail darter (Etheostoma kennicotti) and the western screech owl (Otus kennicotti). Kennicott also led the first U.S. scientific study of Russian America—the place that eventually became the state of Alaska. He died there while on expedition, on May 13, 1866.
The Great Chicago Fire consumed the city for three days from October 8 to 10, 1871. On the final day, the fire approached the Academy. The building was equipped with a fire proof vault and, with this in mind, staff quickly stored everything of importance there, expecting the building to be damaged but their valuable scientific collections and research notes to be saved. The heat from the fire was so great that it melted the supports of an ornamental limestone cornice at the top of the building, causing it to fall and crash through the roof of the vault. This structural failure allowed the fire to sweep inside and destroy the vault’s contents, along with the museum and most of the rest of the collections.
Academy staff were devastated. William Stimpson, the Academy’s director from 1866 to 1872 and a prominent malacologist (a scientist who studies shelled animals such as clams), lost his life’s work in the fire. In just a few moments the “the Smithsonian of the West” and the fourth largest scientific collection in the country was gone, and the Academy’s future was in question.
Matthew Laflin Memorial Building, 1894
Following the fire, the scientific community and public rallied around the Academy. Businessman and philanthropist Matthew Laflin was the primary funder for a new building, which opened on October 31, 1894 in Lincoln Park. In this new space, much of the Academy’s earlier scientific work, including natural history collecting, was able to continue and a new emphasis was placed on community involvement. This would be the Academy’s home for the next 100 years.
Frank C. Baker in the field around Skokie, 1908
At its founding, the Academy was one of only a few natural history museums in the nation. As such, its purview extended from coast to coast. As other similar institutions were founded, the Academy narrowed its scientific work to focus primarily on the Midwest and on specific kinds of organisms. Frank Baker, an Academy curator from 1894 to 1915 and prominent malacologist, conducted ecological surveys across Illinois and scientifically described many new species of snails. Among his significant publications are The Mollusca of the Chicago Region, several papers on anatomy of Lymnaea (a group of common pond snails), and a taxonomy of the family Muricidae (a diverse group of sea snails). Many of these publications are still relevant to malacological research today, and the historical record provided by Baker’s surveys gives us high-quality comparison data to assess how our local ecosystem has changed in the past hundred years.
Academy staff developing a photographic enlargement for a diorama, ca. 1915
Traditionally, animal specimens were preserved as study skins or as crudely stuffed mounts. Then, in the early 1910s, a man named Carl Akeley pioneered new specimen preparation techniques that enabled him to create more realistic displays. The Academy also began to experiment with these ideas, and devised large, meticulously detailed dioramas as a new way to represent local species and natural areas.
Frank Woodruff, an ornithologist, curator, and director at the Academy from 1896 to 1926, oversaw the development of the “Chicago Environs Series,” a group of exhibits that presented natural areas around Chicago. His first life-size diorama, depicting the dunes ecosystem and the Calumet River, used photographs that were enlarged up to 11 feet high by 10 feet wide for the backdrops. Here, Woodruff (in suspenders) and other Academy staff process one of these diorama backdrops.
Academy field trip to Starved Rock State Park, ca. 1915
Field trips, like the one pictured here, were among the many ways the Academy actively included the Chicago community in its scientific work and promoted the appreciation of nature. Students who accompanied Academy naturalist Henry Cowles to the Indiana Dunes gathered data that eventually resulted in his theory of ecological succession—the idea that a habitat naturally progresses (e.g. from pond to wetland to shrubland to forest) as certain species dominate resources and then die off. In addition to offering field trips, the Academy’s innovative teacher training programs helped make Chicago’s teachers some of the most scientifically literate educators around, while lectures, films, and nature walks were popular with the broader community. For local naturalist groups, the Academy provided a home with space to meet and experts to interact with.
Leonara Gloyd in Arizona with a badger, 1937 (left)
Howard K. Gloyd in Arizona, 1937 (right)
Continuing efforts to document and study biodiversity, the Academy conducted several faunal surveys of the American Southwest between 1937 and 1946. The specimens, photographs, and motion film brought back to Chicago were shared through public lectures and publications, providing many Chicagoans with their first look at this desert environment. Spearheading the Arizona expeditions was Howard Gloyd, a herpetologist and director of the Academy from 1936 to 1958. Among many other scientific advancements, Gloyd published “The Rattlesnakes: Genera Sistrurus and Crotalus” and so defined North America’s most iconic snakes, including Illinois’ now-endangered Massasauga. His wife, Leonara, studied dragonflies and accompanied him on at least one of the Arizona expeditions.
William J. Beecher at a local beach along Lake Michigan with a reporter looking at birds killed by a major storm, 1969
During the 1960s and ‘70s, the Academy revitalized its exhibits and expanded its education and outreach programs to further focus on Midwestern ecology. Under the leadership of William Beecher, director from 1958 to 1982 and an avid ornithologist and photographer, the Academy increased its involvement in local environmental issues, from preserving the Indiana Dunes to monitoring bird collisions with windows. Beecher also implemented the Junior Academy of Sciences, a program aimed at middle and high school students to provide extracurricular learning opportunities for young people interested in science. Today we still have active volunteers who began in the Junior Academy fifty years ago.
Academy symposiums, 1988 to 1990
Throughout its history, Academy lectures and symposiums have provided a venue for the community to learn about and be involved in scientific discussion. From the 1970s to 1990s the focus shifted away from taxonomic research to address pressing environmental issues, science education practices, and urban biodiversity. Among the influential meetings hosted by the Academy:
- “The Chicago Urban Environmental Conference” (1977) helped coalesce the land stewardship movement in Chicago.
- “Understanding Chimpanzees Symposium” (1986) and “Understanding Chimpanzees: Diversity and Survival” (1991) were attended by Jane Goodall and later credited by her as influencing to her work.
- “Science Learning in the Informal Setting” (1987) highlighted the importance of experiential learning.
- “Sustainable Cities Symposium: Preserving and Restoring Urban Biodiversity” (1990) was an early recognition of the role that urban habitat plays in conservation.
Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, 1999
(Photo credit Dan Rest)
After 100 years in the Laflin Building, the Academy opened the doors to its new, larger home in Lincoln Park, the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, in October 1999. The Nature Museum provided the Academy a fresh venue through which to engage its audiences and continue to address the local environment in its exhibits, programs, and research.
Academy conservation work, 2001 to 2015
Since 2001, the Academy has been leading conservation efforts for a variety of local, threatened species. In the Istock Family Butterfly Conservation Lab, thousands of rare butterflies are bred for release, including the Swamp Metalmark (Calephelis muticum) and Regal Fritillary (Speyeria idalia). Partnering with the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Academy staff have raised and released 236 baby Blanding’s turtles into the Chicago Wilderness region. Just this past fall, an Academy scientist found a hatchling Blanding’s turtle in the wild—the first one recorded within the project area since 1998.
Conservation efforts at the Academy include both animal husbandry and wild population monitoring, the success of which is largely due to the active participation of volunteer citizen scientists. Today, the Academy leads several citizen science initiatives: the Illinois Butterfly Monitoring Network, Project Squirrel, and The Calling Frog Survey. Award-winning lesson plans, teacher development courses, and public programs build on and support the Academy’s conservation efforts.
Explore nature in Chicago with us!
Chicago is an urban area, and yet, nature exists all around us. What kind of nature is in your backyard or neighborhood? How do you interact with nature? Share your urban nature experiences with us through social media, #urbannature.